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Trauma porn and the commodification of Lebanon’s tragedy

‘The most traumatic moment in his life was on display for anyone to see.’

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

The term “trauma porn” makes people uncomfortable. But I’m going to keep using it, because as a Lebanese citizen who lived through the Beirut blast and works in mental health, I know how relevant it is. 

My definition for trauma porn is paraphrased from a piece by Tina Charisma, who wrote about the commercialisation of Black pain in the media. It’s when graphic violent content of other people’s trauma is shared in the mass media, leading to commercialisation and even commodifying the trauma for profit or entertainment. 

It’s a concept I had come across before, in my work at Elgorithm, a Lebanese non-profit that, among other things, works to boost access to mental healthcare and improve the general mental wellbeing of young people in the country. 

Over the years, I’ve worked and spoken to many people who expressed indignation when journalists from major media outlets visited their communities, intent on capturing the tragedy in their lives, and nothing else.  

For example, Fatima, a 29-year-old from Syria, told me how she had described her journey to Lebanon to a reporter, telling him how her fiancé had died in the war. Despite the fact that she had asked for video of the conversation not to be used, the journalist turned it into a short video clip that received millions of views. She felt violated, with the intimate details of her trauma on display to the world. It had become trauma porn. 

“It has the potential to re-traumatise an already vulnerable population that has been through so much.”

But the first time it became real to me was a year after the August 2020 Beirut blast, a shocking event that destroyed a large part of the city, coming about a year into an already devastating economic collapse. During that time of remembrance, I felt there was no term other than trauma porn that described the incessant sharing and re-sharing of bloody war-like scenes of the explosion’s aftermath on social media and in the media, in a country that is only 30 years removed from its own civil war. 

By then, I had taken a year to process the explosion, and how it was impacting my close friends and community. I also witnessed some collective healing. That’s why I was so disappointed to see that both individuals and the media seemed to have no problem with spreading visuals of the blast victims who had not given their consent. Videos of people desperately trying to find their way home through the rubble of Beirut were continuously broadcast on local and international media.

Next week, it will be a year and a half since the blast, and I have no doubt all of this will come up once again. This is not just upsetting, it also has the potential to re-traumatise an already vulnerable population that has been through so much.

A traumatised population, a difficult recovery

A close friend of mine was at the site of the blast, and taken for treatment to Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital that is relatively close to the port. Overwhelmed with patients, doctors and nurses resorted to treating the injured in the waiting room.

The press came too, and photos and videos that emerged from that waiting room include survivors covered in debris – emotional, desperately trying to reach their family members. A few of them have become so closely associated with the explosion that when you search for the event online, they come up first on major media outlets. 

My friend is in those images and videos, and that has been extremely difficult. Part of his recovery has been coming to grips with the fact that these infamous images, synonymous with a terrible tragedy, included him, and that the most traumatic moment in his life was on display for anyone to see.

He was lucky enough to be able to access therapy, but this is not an option for most people in Lebanon. 

In the immediate aftermath of the blast, one survey found that more than 80 percent of Lebanese surveyed showed some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The need for mental health support was already rising before that, with understandable depression and anxiety related to financial loss and fears about the future. At the same time, the currency has lost 90 percent of its value, making it harder to afford therapy. And many mental health specialists who can afford to leave the country are doing so. 

A local and an international problem

Both the Lebanese and international media are to blame. For the first year after the explosion, almost all major Lebanese TV channels would abruptly and without warning feature trauma porn in its purest form in between news segments or shows. 

For a local audience who had been through the event and were likely dealing with the psychological implications, reminders like this could simply re-traumatise them, dehumanise survivors, and normalise the scenes. 

While the local spread caused trauma to reverberate in Lebanon, international attention bought global – and primarily Western – audiences a front row seat to consuming, at arm’s length, what probably seemed to them like “just another Arab tragedy”.

There’s already a media obsession with Arab tragedy, where it is seen as the region’s identity, even its “cultural script”. So, without asking for consent, or giving the images context, or telling the full stories of the people in them, the international media perpetuates the idea that the Arab region is nothing more than war and violence. 

The images and footage become nothing more than entertainment, and they strip Beirut’s community of its dignity, giving the world a window into their trauma. 

“The international media perpetuates the idea that the Arab region is nothing more than war and violence.”

Over the last year and a half, part of which I’ve lived outside Lebanon, I’ve truly tried to understand the purpose of these sorts of images, in the hopes of finding a positive intention or outcome. I’ve found none. They don’t incite calls for much-needed collective action, or make change.

I’m not saying the people spreading this stuff, or publishing it, have bad intentions. They may mean well. But in fact, as the late bell hooks argued, increased exposure to violent imagery “throughout our daily lives makes us less likely to respond to them with moral outrage or concern”. 

All of this doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t report on events like the Beirut blast. But there are ways to do it without graphic imagery, without putting people’s mental health at risk, and without making it even worse for those who are dealing with the fallout of what may be the most difficult time of their lives.

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